ON BEING ITALIAN
We Italians have a gift for melancholy. And Drama –in the living room, at the dining room table, all over the house. We have a passion for good food and opera - for powerful, passionate heart stirring arias by Puccini and big plates of capellini marinara con formaggio. We love a good fight. We love a good, passionate make out session. We are never ambivalent – always black and white, very right or very wrong. We are not indecisive when it comes to feuds. We are unable to block out past injuries but dwell on them with relish like a good bowl of pasta. We are volatile when it comes to emotions. They flood out of us – these vented feelings - and drench anyone in reach, like a sizzling, pounding thunderstorm.
We Italians are not shy. We are gregarious, boisterous, robust, judgmental, and extremely compassionate. We are a mix of such immense opposing emotions that we can explode at the drop of hat. Crying, wailing, shouting, screaming, cuddling, kissing, hugging – all of it is always at a fever pitch. There is never a sottovoce. Rarely a pianissimo – much more likely to be constantly and relentlessly a very solid fortissimo.
The music of the house I grew up in was a good old-fashioned, highly dramatic, Italian opera. There were secrets hoarded for years, life-long enemies, (usually family members) who were loathed for months, years, decades. There were grandmothers that frowned, scowled and scolded, and yet make you the best gnocchi in the world. There were uncles who spoke in voices made rough by countless cigarettes. The sound was like the hoarse barking of a little dog – uncles that taught you about pop music and styling, and scared you half to death because you knew, for sure, they must be part of the mafioso.
There were aunts that were hypochondriacs. Loving, crazy, fun aunts that filled their days with visits to the doctors. That was their job. To go to the doctor. The obsession. The goal at the end of the week was to see how many doctors may have been visited and lied to. Because of course, as many doctors as you have seen, are as many doctors as there are fools.
There were mothers who loved you immensely but simply could not show it in physical contact. There were fathers who weren’t very talkative, but showed their love in hugs, and squeezes and playful boxing until you had a bloody nose. There were sisters you loved dearly and at the same time you were dreadfully jealous of, because they were more beautiful, more talented, and more likeable than you.
You were the giraffe. That tall girl, with the giant bushy eyebrows, and the humped shoulders from trying to the hide the fact that she was so damn tall. The one that read for hours and could not, would not, say what she was feeling. The one who was so quiet, no one ever had a clue as to what was going on in her very busy mind. The one who hid herself in her music, her piano playing - the only place she felt worthy of something.
The Italians. And that’s how I grew up. A hunger for love, a fierce connection with music and a yearning for God and quiet. Loving the largeness of our family while longing for a calm, peaceful household. Disparities, opposites raging inside like two mad dogs fighting over an osso-bucco. Some sort of craziness can be accounted for then in such an upbringing, right? Ma si!